Friday, May 10, 2013

The Gift of Failure

Ah, spring!  Flowers, green grass, trees in bud, undergraduates in an uproar over their grades --probably because they now realize that they will have to reconcile accounts with whomever has been paying for their college experience and have to put that picture of them doing beer-bongs they posted on Facebook into proper context with the D's and F's that litter their transcript like shattered beer bottles on the frat-house floor.  Ah yes, spring!

Let me share with you the contents of my e-mail's in-box:

Student:  hey, why the f?  i no i did not do will in class, but i went so why an f?

Me: I think you have answered your own question.  You got got an F because you "did not do will [sic] in class."

Your grade is calculated by adding test, quiz and research paper scores together.  Your grade is not dependant on how nice you are, nor how hard you work.  I question your sincerity, because if you knew you were failing, why did I not once see you for extra help during office hours?  This is your education: a fully interactive, actual reality environment, wholly dependent on your performance.  There are no participation awards in college.

In the future, I advise you to take some initiative and fully understand the material before you are tested on it.  You will probably realize better grades if you do this.

I have given you a valuable gift: the gift of failure.  What you do with this gift will define your future character.  You might choose anger and resentment, forever after alienating yourself from the academic process; you might choose despair and depression, turning  harmful thoughts and feelings in on yourself, damaging your character; or, you might choose thoughtful reflection, identifying the reasons for your failure, and making an action plan to prevent future such failures.  I advise you choose the third alternative.
Well yeah, Adjunct Proff-o-rama, but why the F?
In my opinion, the F is not given nearly as much as it needs to be.  In my middle school years back in the late Pleistocene period (we called it "Junior High" back then), I got an F in Algebra.  I couldn't have been more delighted, because that now meant that I could stop taking these uber-difficult math classes that my parents had been pushing me to take, and instead take the ordinary ones, along with Jerome Gallagher who still brought his lunch to school in a Scooby Doo lunchbox, and Chris Neville who had a prominent, protruding brow line, only one eyebrow, and regularly beat the snot out of Jerome Gallagher (to be fair to Chris, he also regularly beat the snot out of anyone else he suspected of being a homo-sapiens).  In high school, I was able to load up on social studies, music and history, which I eventually went into as a career (the history part only.  My music career was limited to playing trombone in a union swing-band that gigged at a  local ballroom for the benefit of the post-punk jitterbuggers that frequented it, and one paid gig as lead vocalist for a Commodores/Earth, Wind and Fire all-caucasian tribute band that disbanded after we learned the real meaning behind the lyrics of [She's a] Brick House).
The song wasn't about a girl with
big tits and a big booty.

Administrators cringe whenever I bring this subject up.  I once worked under a high school principal whom I'll call "George," who once suggested to me that I give my students extra points on their term grade if they "brought a pen or a pencil to class."  "George" took issue with my gradebook because "it had too many F's in it and not enough A's."  Believing that "George" was more of a hands-on guy than he ultimately turned out to be, I started shipping him the collected homework and uncorrected tests from that class so that he could grade them more to his liking.  I also discovered that "George" was a bit deficient in the humor department  when he threatened to bring me up on charges of being a total smart-ass in front of the Superintendent.  So, we just agreed to disagree.  George kept on "socially promoting" students who had in reality flunked, and I kept on flunking them.

But wait, you who are parents of struggling students now cry, flunking students will damage their self-esteem.  Besides, grades are essentially meaningless.  Einstein once flunked a math course; Teddy Kennedy flunked Spanish at Harvard; George W. Bush's grades were, well, self-esteem damagingly low, and look at how successful they all turned out to be.  Ok then, let's get rid of grades.  How about we just establish a minimum number of classroom hours as a basis for awarding undergraduate degrees?  That way, the student can take any number of classes on every subject in the university course catalog, just as long as they spend enough time at it.  Under this system, faculty can dispense with the time-consuming exercise of writing quizzes, tests and exams, and instead concentrate on their own research projects and creating content-rich, stimulating materials for class.  Valedictorian status can be determined by the student who has logged the most class time in 4 years.
"Accountability?  Rigor?  Up your nose with a rubber hose!"

I'm sure that some small college tried to do just that sometime in the 1960's; I am also sure that school no longer exists and that its real estate is currently tasteful, sub-divided homes or condos placed around a central golf course.  You see, that model of education --as good as it sounds --lacks two key elements: accountability and rigor.  And as counterintuitive as it sounds, grades help to ensure both rigor and accountability.  They also provide some students with motivation and positive reinforcement (or negative reinforcement in the case of a poor grade).  So love them or hate them, grades and tests are pretty much here to stay.

One spring after classes were over, the college sponsored several classes for the teaching staff covering a bunch of interesting topics.  I picked one on educational technology, being the gadget-geek that I am.  It turned out to be a class on how to use this software that your students can access with their smartphones or laptops during class in order to complete small quizzes, ask questions, get more information about a topic covered in class and get their homework assignments.  I was mildly impressed, until I realized something: why don't the students just raise their hands?  So I raised my hand and asked the presenter that same question.

His answer said a lot about what is wrong with kids these days (ok ok, I know how that sounds and I don't care.  I turn 50 tomorrow, which officially makes me that that guy with the potbelly gut, standing in the doorway in a wife-beater t-shirt screaming, "Hey!  You kids!  Get outta my yard!")  He said (the presenter, not the guy in the 'beater') "Kids today are more comfortable interfacing with the world through their electronica.  This gives them the chance to interact virtually without exposing them to actual reality."

The really sad thing is that they are texting each other.
 I was stunned, but then it all made sense: that blank look on a former girlfriend's children's faces when I suggested that they go outside and play; the anxiety and panic on the face of the student who was told by his parents in a disciplinary meeting that he was forbidden the use of his cell phone and computer for a week; the proliferation of on-line courses, colleges and degrees.

Look, when I was a kid, I played outside with tons of other kids in all kinds of weather.  We rode bikes all over town (sans helmets), played a politically incorrect game called Russian Muck that consisted of kicking a football in the air and then piling onto the kid who caught it.  We ate penny candy, drank sodas, stole apples and cherries from the orchard trees, pelted each other with snowballs, and yes, we got into fist-fights.  And we were human because we did these things.  When we were cruel to each other, we saw them cry, felt shitty about what we did, apologised and tried not to do it again, because it was much better to have a lot of friends than to be thought of as a meanie.  When we were bullied, we didn't have counselling sessions or adult intervention.  We either stood up to the bully or continued to get pounded by them or both.  And our only "electronica" consisted of cartoons and Three Stooges re-runs on the TV, and the occasional crank-call on the telephone that was bolted to the wall.

When we went to school, we were instructed by an adult, but we often taught each other.  I remember a "reading-round" group in 6th grade where we read passages of the text out loud to our group, who were encouraged to correct word order mistakes, pronunciation goofs and help us to sound-out unfamiliar words. In high school study hall, we would always sit next to kids in our classes so that we could study for tests together and help each other with our homework.  And yes, we raised our hands in class.
Dad, this is totally awkward.  I know where babies
come from.  Hell, I AM a baby!
We didn't have as much information back then as kids have today for the simple reason that our information had to be excavated from the dictionary and the encyclopedia.  And we didn't have as much porn in our lives (we were pretty much limited to mold-encrusted Playboy magazines stashed in our treehouses).  And our parents didn't feed us microwaved food or take-out.  And if we did crummy in school, we dropped out to get a job or went to vocational training schools and became rich plumbers and contractors.  But whatever we did, we actually did it --not virtually.

So please forgive me for sending this tirade out via blog and not by first class U.S. Postal Service.  And don't  pass up your next opportunity to actually do something with a person who is actually standing in your vicinity.  And don't whine to me about your grade --I'll just stick your whiny little complaint in my next end-of-term blog.

1 comment:

  1. Many of you are probably shocked that I published "George's" address along with his name in a public blog. Rest assured, I made it all up: his name isn't George and he doesn't live at that address. The "points-for-pencils" part is true, as is my retaliation of burying him in uncorrected work. What a total d-bagger that guy was!